The phone call came on New Years Day — about a year after my mother’s death. I was finally back on my feet. I had found a job, applied to grad school — and started to enjoy life again.
But the woman on the other end of the line said she was a friend of my dad’s and that he was in the hospital. Nothing life-threatening — but he was starting to develop dementia and would be moved to a nursing home.
“Dementia?!” I thought. “Wow.”
My parents split up when I was too young to remember. My dad was an alcoholic and never showed up in family court, so my mom got full custody.
I saw my dad occasionally until I was five or six. But my mother was always fearful.
“If he really wanted to hurt me, he’d hurt you,” she said.
I didn’t know whether to believe that. But … I’d seen my dad curse at my grandfather. I’d heard stories of him angrily ripping phones out of the walls. And according to my mother’s diary, he once blocked her path and told her, “You’re through, unless you deliver Willow to me. You understand?”
So throughout high school and college, I kept my distance.
After my mother’s death, I thought about calling. But I was worried my dad would say something like, “It’s just as well she’s dead.” I’d heard he kept grudges.
So I kept putting off the phone call.
When I found out he was ill, I did make plans to see him.
But then, another call came. My dad had taken a turn for the worse and had at most a few days left to live. I got right in the car.
When I arrived at the hospital, my father was lying on his back, eyes closed, mouth slightly ajar. An IV tube dripped pain killers into his arm.
Standing by his bed, I felt like a visitor — not a daughter.
Finally, I reached out and touched his hand. “Hi,” I said. “It’s Willow. I came to see you.”
And the following afternoon, he passed away.
The one attorney in town said my dad had left everything to a friend. There was nothing for me to do — no funeral arrangements to make, no house to clear out, no one to notify.
So I headed back to New York.
Driving home, I thought about how the few memories I had of my dad … were so much nicer than what I’d HEARD about him.
He was a composer and spent most of his time on a little, rocky island in Maine, which he’d bought in his twenties for $500. He built a windmill, and a house that looked like a castle, with a grand piano and harpsichord in the living room. A network of toy trains snaked through the trees and rocks.
Here, my dad was a fascinating playmate. We’d pick out tunes on the harpsichord … explore the castle … and write stories — where I was the main character.
But the visits ended abruptly. My dad kept me too long one day, and my mom called the police.
After that, even the occasional calls and birthday cards stopped.
After his death, I realized I’d been feeling the loss of this dad — the fun dad — for a long time. Now, I was also grieving for someone I didn’t know. The emotions confused me. I didn’t feel I deserved to be so upset.
So I didn’t tell people he died. When friends and colleagues asked why I had left town, I’d say, “Family emergency — but it’s all taken care of.”
But it isn’t. The lack of closure really bothers me. My dad and I both missed an opportunity. And although I think my childhood was happier and more stable without him, I wish we’d had time for me to be the adult and reach out.